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COVID in France: Government says it is 'critical,' approves vaccinations for young children

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By Alice Tidey
A medical staff takes the temperature to a child in a vaccine center in Sélestat, eastern France, Dec. 21, 2021.
A medical staff takes the temperature to a child in a vaccine center in Sélestat, eastern France, Dec. 21, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

The COVID-19 epidemic is likely to go "full throttle" in France as it prepares to cope with a new wave of Omicron cases heading into the holiday season.

"The situation is critical," government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

The government plans to hold an emergency meeting shortly after Christmas and, on Wednesday, started allowing children aged 5 to 11 to receive the vaccine.

"Vaccinations can start without delay, the centres are ready," Health Minister Olivier Véran told BFM news channel.

The announcement comes after the country's ethics committee endorsed the move last week, as vaccination of vulnerable children was opened.

Attal said that Delta variant is circulating throughout the country at an "unprecedented" level, and the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is looming.

Omicron is "gradually becoming the majority in several region," and the government expects it to become dominant nationwide "probably between Christmas and the New Year."

Case numbers have been on the rise in recent days. Some 72,800 new infections were reported on Tuesday in France — a new pandemic high for the country. Attal had the previous day said that the new record was linked to the "Omicron wave" with about 20% of all new cases now due to the latest variant of concern.

About 90% of French adults are fully vaccinated as well as over three-quarters of children aged 12 to 17, according to health ministry data.

Véran said however that 12 to 17-year-olds will not for the moment be offered booster doses.

Adults and teenagers are required to show a COVID pass — attesting they have either been fully vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 over the previous 48 hours or recently recovered from the disease — to visit bars, restaurants, cultural and leisure venues as well as use long-distance public transport.

The French government has for now not imposed any new measures to tackle a recent surge of infections and to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

But it is planning to swap its current COVID pass with a "vaccine pass" that would only allow fully vaccinated people to access the different venues concerned with the pass.

The government will convene on December 27 for an exceptional cabinet meeting on the topic with the proposed legislation expected to be presented and approved by lawmakers before mid-January.

About six million French adults are unvaccinated and the move is designed to force them to take the plunge. The government is also mulling imposing the pass to workplaces, although unions are against it.

According to the government, the announcement last Friday by Prime Minister Jean Castex of plans to impose a "vaccine pass" was followed by an increase in first vaccinations with 50,000 first doses administered on Tuesday, a level not seen in several weeks.

Attal told reporters following the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning that the government "takes responsibility for the vaccine pass" given that "our hospitals and ICUs are full of patients who could have avoided being there".

"Today the unvaccinated make up less than 10% of the population but more than half of the patients in hospital," he stressed.